Disability in Comedy
by Briana Livelsberger
Note: These are movies that I often watch and find funny. However, I recognize the problems with the representations in these films.
It is common for comedies to rely on physical humor. Many movies feature someone tripping down stairs or falling into a pool or accidentally getting a hand slammed in a drawer for comedic purposes. Even other genres use physical humor when the plot may not have room for funny dialogue. It’s easy to add something happening in the background of a scene or have something happen to someone, without it taking away from the actual story. However, another common way to add humor into a movie is by adding in someone with a disability. Let me show you some examples.
50 First Dates
It may not be a surprise that this film is on this list since it’s a comedy who’s female lead, Lucy, is unable to remember new things. However, while Lucy’s syndrome does create many funny scenarios, Lucy isn’t put into the movie solely to be funny. 10 second Tom, on the other hand, has no other real purpose but to provide humor. Only able to remember something for 10 seconds, Tom creates a way for people to laugh.
Tom is first introduced after Lucy learns about her brain damage. Tom has enough time to introduce himself to four of the characters plus a little more discussion before he forgets and then re-introduces himself again. During this, Henry (the male lead), tells Tom that Doug (Lucy’s brother) gets wet dreams. Tom says, “Don’t you think you’re a little old to wet the bed.” Afterward, he forgets and re-introduces himself to Doug, creating an opportunity for viewers to laugh.
Another example of Tom’s creation of humor is shown when Henry goes to Lucy. While rushing up some stairs, Henry runs into Tom and Tom says, “Hi! I’m Tom.” Henry asks Tom a long question that takes up the rest of the 10 seconds, making Tom’s response, “Hi! I’m Tom.” His disability becomes a running punch-line.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban isn’t considered a comedy but there are funny parts that break up the tension being built in the plot. One such moment is when Harry boards the night bus when running away from home. The bus speeds through all sorts of traffic and commotion but stops when an older woman with a walker is in the process of crossing the street. The bus’s sudden stop throws Harry into the front window. However, the humor doesn’t end there. The shrunken head hanging from the bus’s rearview mirror does a countdown from ten as the woman crosses the street. However, after it says 3, it begins using measurements of time such as 3½ and 1¾. Then the bus drives off after she’s out of the way. This moment plays off the idea of elderly individuals, especially those with mobility aids, being slow. Since most people feel similarly, this makes a joke off of a shared experience.
Robin Hood Men in Tights
This film was interesting to analyze because Blinkin (Robin’s blind servant) creates humor by both going against stereotypes about blind individuals and playing into the stereotypes. For example, there is a scene in which Robin is almost killed by an arrow shot by a man in a tower. However, Blinkin catches the arrow, saying, “I heard it from a mile away.” Right after, Robin says something, but Blinkin suddenly isn’t able to tell who is talking. This scene starts with the idea that, since Blinkin is blind, he can hear better than those around him. Then, by making it that he can’t tell that Robin is talking, it creates humor. Blinkin is also put into a lot of situations where he fights the air or an inanimate object during a battle sequence or he’ll face a different direction from everyone else when reacting to something.
Despicable Me 1 + 2
Despicable Me 1 and 2 both rely on humor (especially physical humor) to tell the story of Gru’s antics. One source of humor comes from the older scientist known as Dr. Nefario. In Despicable Me, Dr. Nefario’s difficulty with hearing becomes the basis of many jokes, such as a fart gun instead of a dart gun or boogie robots instead of cookie robots. Another joke comes during the scene where Dr. Nefario realizes that the shrink ray doesn’t work long term and has no way of telling Gru. Dr. Nefario says, “We need to warn him, quick!” He revs his scooter and moves forward. However, the scooter moves slowly, counteracting the urgency of the situation.
In Despicable Me 2, Dr. Nefario leaves Gru’s workplace and decides to work for someone else. When leaving, rockets on the bottom of his scooter send him up into the air...slowly. Both of these movies play off of common disabilities that come with age (deafness and difficulty walking). Anyone who has seen a scooter used to help people who can’t walk, can understand that it is slow - which is why it is funny when it is slow in the films during crucial moments.
9 Months is classified as a romantic comedy and features many humorous characters such as Dr. Kosevich (played by Robin Williams) and Gail (played by Joan Cusack). However, there is one moment in the movie where humor was created that ultimately didn’t add anything to the film. Samuel (the male lead) rushes to take his wife, Rebecca, to the hospital once she’s in labor. In a mad dash from the car to the entrance, Samuel is stopped by an older woman exiting the hospital while using a walker. Not wanting to wait, Samuel rushes to pick up the woman and move her away from the doors so that he can get Rebecca through. I believe this is meant to play off of the shared experience of older women with walkers taking time to move and might show what many wish they could do in such a situation, providing a place for humor. However, in my opinion, this further establishes how much of a jerk Samuel is.
16 Candles is a cult classic of teen movies, full of teenage hijinks, romantic entanglements, and crazy circumstances that can make many laugh. However, one part of this film that creates humor is the character only known as Geek Girl #1 (played by Joan Cusack). Geek Girl #1’s only memorable feature is that she has a neck/back brace and the awkwardness caused by it. The only time she says anything is towards the beginning and all she says is “uh-huh” and “yeah.” However, despite the fact that she doesn’t say much, we see Geek Girl #1 at random times. At the school dance, we see her dancing awkwardly with a friend (though less awkwardly than Farmer Ted). We also see her try to drink from a water fountain with the neck brace on. Struggling to do so, she ends up getting water all over her face and wipes it off with her shirt. At the party, we see her trying to drink a beer (without a straw) in her brace. She leans back, holding the beer can as straight up and down as she can without spilling it on herself. Leaning back too far, she falls backwards onto the floor. Geek Girl #1 is made to be a source of comedy through the awkwardness that comes from having a brace.
Personally, I relate to Geek Girl #1 as I have a neck brace. She shows the struggles that can come with a brace that many others may never experience. In this way, Geek Girl #1 sort of spreads awareness about these issues. However, the intention behind her inclusion in the film was most likely for comedic purposes. In addition, most people just look at her and her awkwardness and laugh.
This film relies a lot on physical humor and irony as the protagonist, Johnny English, is often physically unaware of his surroundings or what he’s doing. In one scene Johnny English is talking with his boss’s secretary when he notices a pen on the desk. Examining the pen, he accidentally sends a dart out and hits the secretary. Because of whatever substance the dart was coated in, the secretary is rushed to a hospital all-the-while, Johnny English’s boss doesn’t notice anything that’s happening. When the secretary returns to work, Johnny English is in his boss’s office. She rolls by the windows of her boss’s office in a wheelchair, staring angrily at Johnny English.
There’s Something About Mary
While Tucker’s existence is more than for a laugh, the movie uses his disability to make a joke much like how other films do. He drops his keys and goes to pick them up. However, Tucker’s forearm crutches make it difficult for him to grab his keys without struggling to keep his balance and get close enough to the ground to grab them. He refuses Mary’s offer to grab the keys for him and insists on grabbing them himself. Eventually, Mary hands him the keys and he says, “See, I knew I could do it myself.” He then drops the keys not long after and has to struggle again. This scene shows the awkwardness and humor from struggling to pick up keys.
What is the significance of these images of disabled individuals used for comedy? When movies have a disabled character or random person in the scene that only contributes something to laugh at, it perpetuates the idea that people with disabilities are an object for entertainment. I’m not saying that humor can’t be used where people with disabilities are concerned. There are funny situations that occur in life with disabilities and I don’t think it’s an issue to show that in a movie. However, when a movie only shows a disabled individual in order to provide humor, it becomes more than just being funny. It becomes okay to laugh at disabled individuals.